One of the beautiful and enduring myths in Australian surfing history, is that Isabel Letham was the first woman to go surfing here. And indeed, fifteen year-old Isabel certainly volunteered to ride tandem with Duke Kahanamoku when he performed a display of wave riding at Freshwater Beach, Sydney in 1915. Lucky Isabel! The event was well recorded and is often summoned in stories and film, and retold as a significant part of Australian surfing history. And it is!
But, not surprisingly, evidence shows that there were women involved in oceanic and wave-catching pursuits before this.
Reg Harris, in his 1959 history of Manly Surf Life Saving Club, Heroes of the Surf states: “In the 1912-13 season a number of Manly L S club members decided to persevere and master the art [of surfing]. They included Jack Reynolds and Norman Roberts, Geoff Wyld, Tom Walker, a 13-year old boy named Claude West… and an outstanding woman surfer, Miss Esma [sic] Amor” (at which time she would have been 14 or 15 years old). The evidence is that surfing was established at Manly by 1912, and it would have been surprising if some of the bolder girls had not given it a try.
Did you see that? She seems to have been surfing in 1912-13. This kind of image and this kind of story is important in making women more and more visible as surfers, and giving them a place and significance in the history, development and performance of surfing. Although we don’t hear their stories quite as much, they still exist. Not as prolifically, but that is not as reason to dismiss them out of hand. When I see images like this one of Isma Amor, and when I read stories of her as a surfer it rocks my world. Because it is incredible to think what kind of woman she must have been. But it also thrills me think of the kinds of support and encouragement she must have had from the men around her – to help with the weight of the board, to help her negotiate understandings and expectations for women at the time, and to share in the discovery and experience of the joys of being in the water in this new (for Australians) way! What an awesome thought! What an awesome idea!
When I hear and see stories of women in the past – surfing, learning to surf and being in the ocean – it means so much more than just knowing that there is evidence and validation for their existence. When I see these images, I feel connected to an ongoing history of what surfing – not just in the exhaustingly familiar stories of men and their pursuits, but in the stories of the women that were there as well. Perhaps not as prolific or visible, but just as real.